Football: Dynamic Sevilla an acid test for Foxes

Jamie Vardy, whose form last season was pivotal in Leicester's triumph, has been a shadow of the striker who once scored in 11 consecutive EPL games. He will need to fire against Sevilla if the Foxes, whose domestic form has been woeful so far, are t
Jamie Vardy, whose form last season was pivotal in Leicester's triumph, has been a shadow of the striker who once scored in 11 consecutive EPL games. He will need to fire against Sevilla if the Foxes, whose domestic form has been woeful so far, are to keep their Champions League prospects alive.PHOTO: REUTERS

Sampaoli a vital factor in Spanish side's form but Ranieri's men won't be dismissed lightly

BARCELONA • Embattled Leicester City turn their attention to the one competition they have had success in, during a nightmarish season for the English champions, when they visit high-flying Sevilla today for their Champions League last 16 first leg.

Europe's elite football competition has been a welcome distraction for Claudio Ranieri's side, who have come crashing back down to earth after last year's logic-defying Premier League win but keep defying the odds in Europe.

Leicester finished top of their group and conceded just one goal in their first five Champions League group matches, and a brief escape is just what they need as their domestic woes show no sign of easing.

A winless start to 2017 in the league has left the club one point and a single place above the drop zone, and they are in danger of becoming the first team since Manchester City in 1938 to be relegated the season after winning the English championship.

On Saturday they endured an embarrassing exit from the FA Cup at the hands of League One side Millwall, despite playing most of the second half with an extra man.

They will get little respite from a transformed Sevilla side, who are enjoying their most exciting season in a decade as they chase Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga and mount a serious challenge in the Champions League after winning the Europa League three times in a row.

Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli has brought speed and intensity to the Andalusian side's possession play, yielding its largest ever points haul in the first half of a season.

"He has very specific ideas that he has implanted in our heads and we have responded really well to them," midfielder Pablo Sarabia told newspaper Estadio Deportivo. "We're getting really good results too, which is vital when you change your idea of how to play."

Sevilla lost a number of top players last summer, including top scorer Kevin Gameiro and midfielders Grzegorz Krychowiak and Ever Banega.

Yet, smart work by sporting director Monchi has helped them shrug off those high-profile departures and build a dynamic squad around two former Premier League players, former Stoke City midfielder Steven Nzonzi and playmaker Samir Nasri.

Stevan Jovetic has given them an extra lift in attack since joining on loan from Inter Milan last month and created both goals in Saturday's 2-0 win over Eibar, which kept them on the heels of league leaders Real and second-placed Barcelona.

Sevilla's explosive form contrasts with Leicester's seemingly endless troubles, although Sarabia warned his team-mates against thinking that today's game would be a cakewalk.

He said: "Leicester are having difficulties in the league and we are in much better form.

"But we have to prove that on the pitch, and unless we give 100 per cent, any team could cause us problems."

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'Dynamic Sevilla an acid test for Foxes'. Print Edition | Subscribe